If You Build It, They Will Come

Aaron Blanco, owner of San Antonio’s Brown Coffee Company, remembers his early foray into life with the bean. “I started like everyone else . . . in college . . . drinking coffee as fuel . . . with lots of cream and lots of sugar,” he says.

But a propensity for purism eventually led Blanco to drinking his coffee black, and his passion for the liquid fuel inspired him to get educated. In 2002, Blanco took a barista job at a Philadelphia Starbucks—quickly moving up to manager. Three years later, he and his wife moved to San Antonio to be closer to family, and they soon noticed a dearth of independent coffee peddlers. Blanco used a small loan from his parents and in-laws, bought a five-pound coffee roaster and hung out a shingle.

Eventually, he needed a larger roaster, but the cost of even a used 25-pound roaster was prohibitive. Lamenting the situation to his father-in-law, a retired aviation engineer, the idea for a homemade roaster began to percolate. Soon, using various bits and scraps salvaged from everything but other coffee equipment, the two cobbled together a benevolent Frankenroaster.

“It started with a huge kitchen gas range, which we’ve since upgraded,” says Blanco. Other components include repurposed stainless steel, a chaff separator made from an old beer keg and a thermometer taken from a Weber grill.

Blanco buys direct from farmers whenever possible—currently about 40 percent of the beans he uses—and prefers single-origin roasts, such as Guatemalan Finca Vista Hermosa and Kenyan Kirimara Estate, to blends. He believes people are discovering microlot coffee these days in the same way wine lovers began scrutinizing vineyards decades ago. “The conversation about coffee is moving to the culinary side,” he says. “The general public is becoming aware of coffee as more than just fuel.”

Brown’s coffee lot sizes can vary, but the point is less about quantity and more about maintaining flavor quality. Attaining Brown’s signature light roast depends on the age of the beans, and requires adjusting time and temperature accordingly. There is no set equation, and final decisions on precise roasting requirements for any given batch are made at the cupping table, where Blanco samples test batches until he is satisfied.

“What you look for from our coffee is clean, sweet fruit,” he says. “People have this idea that coffee should be dark, oily and roasty. I put a much lighter profile on it, because all of those flavors—lipids and sugars—are already inside the bean. When you get the oily stuff on the outside, that’s a sign that all of the goodness has left the building.”

Though wholesale and web retail are the company’s main focus, Blanco recently opened a café inside his roastery. “I force people to drink coffee the way I want them to at the café,” he says with a laugh. “There’s no condiment bar and everything is brewed to order.”

Because Blanco’s lessons are delivered with love and good taste, customers and wholesale clients alike are listening and agreeing. Nat Long, manager of Sugar Brown’s Coffee in Lubbock, switched to using Blanco’s beans exclusively. “Aaron’s been great,” says Long. “He’s very knowledgeable, his roaster is a pretty rad little contraption and he’s really consistent. Whatever he’s doing, he’s doing it right.”

Find Blanco’s custom-roasted beans at browncoffeeco.com.